The official line from the Olympic organizers is that all Olympic tickets are SOLD OUT, but that certainly doesn’t mean every seat is filled. Here is the row of seats behind me at the BMX Cycling event I attended today:

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The number of empty seats is painful, especially when the demand is so strong. I purchased the BMX ticket from a scalper for 200 RMB — FIVE TIMES the 40 RMB ticket price — and many more people at my hotel were complaining that they couldn’t go to events because they didn’t have tickets. It’s really annoying for all of us in Beijing trying desperately to go to events, and on top of that, it makes the games a whole lot less exciting. Plus, the conspicuously vacant seats make the Olympics look a whole lot less exciting for people watching at home on TV.

Why are so many tickets going unused? There are a lot of theories, but I see two primary reasons…

First, the organizers priced the tickets cheap enough so that Chinese people could afford them, hoping that the Chinese could watch the Olympics in their home country. Forty RMB is less than $6. At such low prices, the tickets sold like hotcakes, so much so that there was a national lottery and people were limited to something like five tickets each. Unfortunately, the cheap prices and the five ticket quota encouraged all the lottery winners to buy tickets that they weren’t intending to use. It wasn’t like they were throwing away a lot of money. At worst, they lose a few bucks and don’t use their tickets, and at best, they get to go to the Olympics! (Or scalp their tickets and make a quick buck.)

Second, Olympic sponsors were given huge numbers of tickets that they didn’t end up using either. The corporate sponsors gave the Olympic Committee millions of dollars so that they could have their name associated with the Games, and one of the parks was the IOC gave the companies tons of tickets to redistribute as they saw fit. Unfortunately, in many cases, the companies were too worried about their shlocky booths on the Olympic Green to actually send anyone to see the events.

There were other reasons too. A lot of premium seats were reserved for press, athletes and Olympic officials, and the organizers were sure to save more than enough seats to go around…resulting in vacancies.

But for the most part, there are empty seats because people simply aren’t using their tickets. It’s quite a drag. I just wish there were some kind of system so that, say, if thirty minutes into an event and the tickets still hadn’t been used, they’d let people in to fill them. Oh well.